We Love the City

The monologue is my preferred method of discourse.

Battlestar Galactica 1-1: 33


Battlestar Galactica? Really?

You’re going to revive a 1970s  sci-fi series that was a flaccid attempt to emulate the success of Star Wars, replete with soap opera performances and 1970s fashion?

That, in itself, calls for scepticism.

But to the surprise of many, Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries kicked ass.

Surely, though, that creativity and quality wasn’t sustainable on an ongoing basis, right? It’s one thing to produce six hours of miniseries, but an ongoing series?

The creators of Battlestar Galactica must have been aware that the debut of the ongoing series would generate as much, if not more, scepticism than the miniseries. So they responded with 33, an exceptional “pilot” episode, and one of the strongest episodes of the entire series.

The story is simple, even without the “story so far…” intro: The evil Cylons are attacking the human fleet every 33 minutes. The humans run away, the Cylons follow. As the episode opens, this has already been going on for some time: Nerves are frayed, crew members are tired and stressed, and everyone knows that another attack is soon to come. It’s happened 237  times so far, and it’s going to happen again.

While Galactica was often complex and complicated, 33 is simple. You don’t need to remember who is who, where the bad guys are, who’s allied with who, what the political motivations are. All the matters is this: The Bad Guys are following us, we don’t know how, and we can’t get away.

The seriousness of the situation is underscored by President Roslin’s attention to the dwindling human population: it’s gone down by 300 since last count, thanks to illness, wounds, and simple miscounting. You know things are bad when you can keep track of the human race on a dry erase board.

And now, it’s worse: A civilian cruiser carrying 1,345 people has disappeared. Maybe Ensign Dualla screwed up when she transmitted the jump coordinates. Maybe the ship simply broke down. Maybe it’s something more sinister.

It’s all about the numbers:

A Cylon attack every 33 minutes.

237 attacks.

1,345 people on the Olympic Carrier.

49,998 people left in the human race.

It’s more detail than you usually get in 45 minutes of television. Rounding is often more efficient, from a dramatic perspective. But in 33, the details matter. Underestimate a single decimal point, and people will die. When people die, President Roslin writes it down on her board.

The reappearance of the Olympic Carrier fits perfectly with the 9/11 theme of the series, and the spectre of civilian aircraft redirected for terrorist purposes. Maybe there are humans on board, but maybe not; how do you make that decision? Even the fighter pilots, who have seen plenty of action, can’t believe they’re being ordered to kill human beings.

And so the debut episode of a sci-fi action series end with the deaths of more than a thousand innocent civilians, and it’s the happiest ending possible. It’s a hell of a mission statement.

Baltar and Number Six’s story is an interesting diversion. Maybe there’s a guy who knows Baltar accidentally betrayed the human race to the Cylons. But hey, what a coincidence, he disappears on the Olympic Carrier. What good luck! But then the Olympic Carrier shows up again, and maybe Baltar will be exposed. Unless something awful were to happen to the carrier…

Unlike his 1970s predecessor, Gaius Baltar isn’t an evil man. He’s far more common than evil: He’s selfish. His vanity and ego let him betray humanity, and his fear of being discovered compels him to help the Cylons, even when he thinks he’s just helping himself. And maybe he’s having a religious awakening, though that will take a while.

But didn’t his imaginary Cylon urge him to destroy the ship that was being controlled by Cylons? What’s the deal with that? The Cylons have a plan, I’ve heard, so perhaps this is part of it.

33 is tightly plotted, tensely executed, and it effectively reintroduces key plots and characters without getting bogged down in exposition. It gives you space ships, the War On Terror, and sexy alien robots; everything that made the miniseries so surprisingly awesome.

There is absolutely no way Battlestar Galactica will remain this awesome. But it’s a heck of a way to start.

Random observations:

  • Grace Park should not say “frak”. When Starbuck says “frak”, it’s cool; when Boomer says it, it’s an obvious substitute for “fuck,” clumsily inserted into PG-13 dialogue.
  • Grace Park shouldn’t be saying too much. Her improvement over the series is impressive, but she was incredibly wooden in the beginning.
  • Ditto for Tricia Helfer. She looks great in a red dress, but starts going askew whenever the script calls for an emotion other than “sexy.”
  • The pilots are flying on “stims”, which are some sort of futuristic caffeine pills; perhaps they couldn’t score that endorsement deal with Red Bull. But despite all the stressful situations in which Galactica finds itself over the series, stims only come back in Final Cut, where we find out why Starbuck may have been so reluctant to take them.
  • Which brings us to this: Starbuck insists on being one of the troops, which is to say one of the guys. She’s right, of course: If a male pilot refused Apollo’s orders, he’d react more strongly than he does to Starbuck’s disobedience. And later, he does.
  • It’s probably a coincidence that Apollo, Starbuck, and Boomer – our three pilot heroes – are in the “random” patrol when the Olympic Carrier shows up, right?